The #1 New York Times bestseller that examines how people can champion new ideas--and how leaders can fight groupthink, f rom the author of Give and Take and co-author of Option B “Reading Originals made me feel like I was seated across from Adam Grant at a dinner party, as one of my favorite thinkers thrilled me with his insights and his wonderfully new take on the world.” --Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and The Tipping Point “ Originals is one of the most important and captivating books I have ever read, full of surprising and powerful ideas. It will not only change the way you see the world; it might just change the way you live your life. And it could very well inspire you to change your world.” --Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In With Give and Take , Adam Grant not only introduced a landmark new paradigm for success but also established himself as one of his generation’s most compelling and provocative thought leaders. In Originals he again addresses the challenge of improving the world, but now from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. How can we originate new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all? Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent. Learn from an entrepreneur who pitches his start-ups by highlighting the reasons not to invest, a woman at Apple who challenged Steve Jobs from three levels below, an analyst who overturned the rule of secrecy at the CIA, a billionaire financial wizard who fires employees for failing to criticize him, and a TV executive who didn’t even work in comedy but saved Seinfeld from the cutting-room floor. The payoff is a set of groundbreaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo....
“Reading Originals made me feel like I was seated across from Adam Grant at a dinner party, as one of my favorite thinkers thrilled me with his insights and his wonderfully new take on the world.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and The Tipping Point
“Part of the fun of Grant’s book is that he redeems behaviors we typically regard with puritan disdain. . . . Thought-provoking.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Fresh research, counter-intuitive insights, lively writing, practical calls to action . . . Grant has a deserved reputation as an original thinker.”
—The Financial Times
“Grant’s latest looks set to join the required reading lists of many companies across America.”
“[Grant] examines what successful non-conformists . . . have in common, all in an effort to help the rest of us learn how to do things like bust myths, speak truth to power, and avoid groupthink without getting sidelined.”
—The Washington Post
“Adam Grant is a serious social scientist, master storyteller and infectious optimist. . . . Originals is filled with fresh insights on a broad array of topics that are important to our personal and professional lives. Mr. Grant has an uncanny ability to infuse a familiar topic with deeper meaning and leave the reader feeling hopeful and a little exhilarated.”
—The New York Times DealBook
“This extraordinary, wildly entertaining book sheds new light on the Age of Disruption. What does it take to make a meaningful difference? And how can you apply this insight to your own life? By debunking myths of success stories, challenging long-held beliefs of process, and finding commonality among those who are agents of profound change, Adam Grant gives us a powerful new perspective on not just our place in the world, but our potential to shake it up entirely.”
—JJ Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, co-creator and executive producer of Lost, and cofounder of Bad Robot
“After launching hundreds of businesses—from airlines to trains, music to mobile, and now a spaceline—my biggest challenges and successes have come from convincing other people to see the world differently. Originals reveals how that can be done and will help you inspire creativity and change.”
—Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group
“Originals is a fascinating, eye-opening read that will help you not just recognize your own unique gifts, but find the strength to challenge conventional wisdom to bring them to life. Using surprising studies and riveting stories, Adam Grant brilliantly shows us how to champion new ideas, bust persistent myths that hold us back and change not only our lives, but our world.”
—Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, and author of Thrive
“It can sometimes seem as if one must learn everything old before one can try anything new. Adam Grant does a masterful job showing that is not the case; we are lucky to have him as a guide.”
—Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and Palantir, and author of Zero to One
“An urgent must read, a seminal work that will surprise you on every single page. Adam Grant has reset our expectations for what it means to be creative and what's required to make a difference. Share it with someone you care about.”
—Seth Godin, author of Linchpin
Praise for Give and Take
“As brilliant as it is wise, this is not just a book—it’s a new and shining worldview. Adam Grant is one of the great social scientists of our time, and Give and Take is brimming with life-changing insights.”
—Susan Cain, author of Quiet
“Give and Take is a truly exhilarating book—the rare work that will shatter your assumptions about how the world works and keep your brain firing for weeks after you’ve turned the last page.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human
“I love Give and Take, which shows that givers get ahead and nice guys don’t finish last.”
—Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive and president of the Huffington Post Media Group
“Now shaking up the business world: science that may change the way the world does business.”
—Willie Geist, Today show
“Adam Grant’s Give and Take is an excellent book. Hard work, luck, and talent are important, but giving makes the difference.”
—Alex Stubb, prime minister of Finland
“Give and Take is like a fundamental outline as to how to be successful. . . . Highly recommended read.”
—Ashton Kutcher, actor, director, and technology investor
“Give and Take is a very interesting book. . . . I can’t put it down.”
—Ryan Seacrest, host of American Idol
“Give and Take just might be the most important book of this young century. As insightful and entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell at his best, this book has profound implications for how we manage our careers, deal with our friends and relatives, raise our children, and design our institutions. This gem is a joy to read, and it shatters the myth that greed is the path to success.”
—Robert Sutton, author of The No *sshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, where he has been the top-rated professor for seven straight years. He is an expert in how we can find motivation and meaning, and lead more generous and creative lives. He is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of five books that have sold over 2 million copies and been translated into 35 languages: Give and Take, Originals, Option B, Power Moves, and with his wife, Allison Sweet Grant, The Gift Inside the Box. His books have been recognized as among the year’s best by Amazon, the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, and the Wall Street Journal and been praised by J.J. Abrams, Richard Branson, Bill and Melinda Gates, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malala Yousafzai.
Adam’s TED talks have been viewed more than 20 million times. He hosts the chart-topping TED podcast WorkLife. His speaking and consulting clients include Google, the NBA, Bridgewater, and the Gates Foundation. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers, Fortune’s 40 under 40, Oprah’s Super Soul 100, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and received distinguished scientific achievement awards from the American Psychological Association and the National Science Foundation. Adam writes for the New York Times on work and psychology and serves on the Department of Defense Innovation Board. He received his B.A. from Harvard and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and he is a former Junior Olympic springboard diver. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their two daughters, and their son.
The #1 New York Times bestseller that examines how people can champion new ideas in their careers and everyday life—and how leaders can fight groupthink, from the author of Think Again and co-author of Option B
“Filled with fresh insights on a broad array of topics that are important to our personal and professional lives.”—The New York Times DealBook
“Originals is one of the most important and captivating books I have ever read, full of surprising and powerful ideas. It will not only change the way you see the world; it might just change the way you live your life. And it could very well inspire you to change your world.” —Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In
With Give and Take, Adam Grant not only introduced a landmark new paradigm for success but also established himself as one of his generation’s most compelling and provocative thought leaders. In Originals he again addresses the challenge of improving the world, but now from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. How can we originate new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all?
Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent. Learn from an entrepreneur who pitches his start-ups by highlighting the reasons not to invest, a woman at Apple who challenged Steve Jobs from three levels below, an analyst who overturned the rule of secrecy at the CIA, a billionaire financial wizard who fires employees for failing to criticize him, and a TV executive who didn’t even work in comedy but saved Seinfeld from the cutting-room floor. The payoff is a set of groundbreaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo.
Adam Grant is the perfect person to write Originals because he is one.
He is a brilliant researcher who passionately pursues the science of what motivates people, busting myths and revealing truths. He is an informed optimist who offers insights and advice about how anyone—at home, at work, in the community—can make the world a better place. He is a dedicated friend who inspires me to believe in myself and has helped me understand how I can advocate effectively for my ideas.
Adam is one of the most important influences in my life. Through the pages of this magnificent book, he will enlighten, inspire, and support you as well.
Conventional wisdom holds that some people are innately creative, while most have few original thoughts. Some people are born to be leaders, and the rest are followers. Some people can have real impact, but the majority can’t.
In Originals Adam shatters all of these assumptions.
He demonstrates that any of us can enhance our creativity. He reveals how we can identify ideas that are truly original and predict which ones will work. He tells us when to trust our gut and when to rely on others. He shows how we can become better parents by nurturing originality in our children and better managers by fostering diversity of thought instead of conformity.
In these pages, I learned that great creators don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise but rather seek out the broadest perspectives. I saw how success is not usually attained by being ahead of everyone else but by waiting patiently for the right time to act. And to my utter shock, I learned that procrastinating can be good. Anyone who has ever worked with me knows how much I hate leaving things to the last minute, how I always think that anything that can be done should be done right away. Mark Zuckerberg, along with many others, will be pleased if I can let go of the relentless pressure I feel to finish everything early—and, as Adam points out, it might just help me and my teams achieve better results.
Every day, we all encounter things we love and things that need to change. The former give us joy. The latter fuel our desire to make the world different—ideally better than the way we found it. But trying to change deep-seated beliefs and behaviors is daunting. We accept the status quo because effecting real change seems impossible. Still, we dare to ask: Can one individual make a difference? And, in our bravest moments: Could that one individual be me?
Adam’s answer is a resounding yes. This book proves that any one of us can champion ideas that improve the world around us.
I met Adam just as his first book, Give and Take, was generating buzz in Silicon Valley. I read it and immediately started quoting it to anyone who would listen. Adam was not only a talented researcher but also a gifted teacher and storyteller who was able to explain complicated ideas simply and clearly.
Then my husband invited Adam to speak to his team at work and brought him over for dinner. Adam was every bit as extraordinary in person as he was on paper. His knowledge was encyclopedic and his energy was contagious. He and I started talking about how his research could inform the debate on gender and began working together. We have done so ever since, conducting research and writing a series of op-eds about women and work. LeanIn.Org has benefited immensely from his rigorous analysis and commitment to equality.
Once a year, Facebook brings its global teams together, and in 2015 I invited Adam to give a keynote speech. Everyone was blown away by his wisdom and humor. Months later, the teams are still talking about his insights and putting his advice into action.
Along the way, Adam and I became friends. When tragedy hit and I lost my husband suddenly, Adam stepped up and stepped in as only a true friend would. He approached the worst time of my life as he approaches everything, combining his unique understanding of psychology with his unparalleled generosity. When I thought I would never feel better, he flew across the country to explain what I could do to build my resilience. When I could not figure out how to handle a particularly gut-wrenching situation, he helped me find answers where I thought there were none. When I needed a shoulder to cry on, his was always there.
In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself. The magic of this book is that Adam becomes that kind of friend to everyone who reads it. He offers a wealth of advice for overcoming doubt and fear, speaking up and pitching ideas, and finding allies in the least likely of places. He gives practical guidance on how to manage anxiety, channel anger, find the strength in our weaknesses, overcome obstacles, and give hope to others.
Originals is one of the most important and captivating books I have ever read, full of surprising and powerful ideas. It will not only change the way you see the world; it might just change the way you live your life. And it could very well inspire you to change your world.
The Risky Business of Going Against the Grain
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw
On a cool fall evening in 2008, four students set out to revolutionize an industry. Buried in loans, they had lost and broken eyeglasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One of them had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years: He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for pricey new lenses.
Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the eyewear market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. Having recently watched Zappos transform footwear by selling shoes online, they wondered if they could do the same with eyewear.
When they casually mentioned their idea to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted. People had to try them on first. Sure, Zappos had pulled the concept off with shoes, but there was a reason it hadn’t happened with eyewear. “If this were a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.”
None of the students had a background in e-commerce and technology, let alone in retail, fashion, or apparel. Despite being told their idea was crazy, they walked away from lucrative job offers to start a company. They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.
The business depended on a functioning website. Without one, it would be impossible for customers to view or buy their products. After scrambling to pull a website together, they finally managed to get it online at 4 A.M. on the day before the launch in February 2010. They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure. They admired his rebellious spirit, infusing it into their culture. And it paid off.
The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put twenty thousand customers on a waiting list. It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.
Fast forward to 2015, when Fast Company released a list of the world’s most innovative companies. Warby Parker didn’t just make the list—they came in first. The three previous winners were creative giants Google, Nike, and Apple, all with over fifty thousand employees. Warby Parker’s scrappy startup, a new kid on the block, had a staff of just five hundred. In the span of five years, the four friends built one of the most fashionable brands on the planet and donated over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. The company cleared $100 million in annual revenues and was valued at over $1 billion.
Back in 2009, one of the founders pitched the company to me, offering me the chance to invest in Warby Parker. I declined.
It was the worst financial decision I’ve ever made, and I needed to understand where I went wrong.
orig•i•nal, adj The origin or source of something; from which something springs, proceeds, or is derived.
orig•i•nal, n A thing of singular or unique character; a person who is different from other people in an appealing or interesting way; a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity.
Years ago, psychologists discovered that there are two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.
Of course, nothing is completely original, in the sense that all of our ideas are influenced by what we learn from the world around us. We are constantly borrowing thoughts, whether intentionally or inadvertently. We’re all vulnerable to “kleptomnesia”—accidentally remembering the ideas of others as our own. By my definition, originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it.
Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality. The Warby Parker founders had the originality to dream up an unconventional way to sell glasses online, but became originals by taking action to make them easily accessible and affordable.
This book is about how we can all become more original. There’s a surprising clue in the web browser that you use to surf the internet.
Finding the Faults in Defaults
Not long ago, economist Michael Housman was leading a project to figure out why some customer service agents stayed in their jobs longer than others. Armed with data from over thirty thousand employees who handled calls for banks, airlines, and cell-phone companies, he suspected that their employment histories would contain telltale signs about their commitment. He thought that people with a history of job-hopping would quit sooner, but they didn’t: Employees who had held five jobs in the past five years weren’t any more likely to leave their positions than those who had stayed in the same job for five years.
Hunting for other hints, he noticed that his team had captured information about which internet browser employees had used when they logged in to apply for their jobs. On a whim, he tested whether that choice might be related to quitting. He didn’t expect to find any correlation, assuming that browser preference was purely a matter of taste. But when he looked at the results, he was stunned: Employees who used Firefox or Chrome to browse the Web remained in their jobs 15 percent longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.
Thinking it was a coincidence, Housman ran the same analysis for absences from work. The pattern was the same: Firefox and Chrome users were 19 percent less likely to miss work than Internet Explorer and Safari fans.
Then he looked at performance. His team had assembled nearly three million data points on sales, customer satisfaction, and average call length. The Firefox and Chrome users had significantly higher sales, and their call times were shorter. Their customers were happier, too: After 90 days on the job, the Firefox and Chrome users had customer satisfaction levels that Internet Explorer and Safari users reached only after 120 days at work.
It’s not the browser itself that’s causing them to stick around, show up dependably, and succeed. Rather, it’s what their browser preference signals about their habits. Why are the Firefox and Chrome users more committed and better performers on every metric?
The obvious answer was that they’re more tech savvy, so I asked Housman if he could explore that. The employees had all taken a computer proficiency test, which assessed their knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, software programs, and hardware, as well as a timed test of their typing speed. But the Firefox and Chrome group didn’t prove to have significantly more computer expertise, and they weren’t faster or more accurate typists. Even after accounting for those scores, the browser effect persisted. Technical knowledge and skill weren’t the source of their advantage.
What made the difference was how they obtained the browser. If you own a PC, Internet Explorer is built into Windows. If you’re a Mac user, your computer came preinstalled with Safari. Almost two thirds of the customer service agents used the default browser, never questioning whether a better one was available.
To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.
The customer service agents who accepted the defaults of Internet Explorer and Safari approached their job the same way. They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling customer complaints. They saw their job descriptions as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days, and eventually just quit.
The employees who took the initiative to change their browsers to Firefox or Chrome approached their jobs differently. They looked for novel ways of selling to customers and addressing their concerns. When they encountered a situation they didn’t like, they fixed it. Having taken the initiative to improve their circumstances, they had little reason to leave. They created the jobs they wanted. But they were the exception, not the rule.
We live in an Internet Explorer world. Just as almost two thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives. In a series of provocative studies, a team led by political psychologist John Jost explored how people responded to undesirable default conditions. Compared to European Americans, African Americans were less satisfied with their economic circumstances but perceived economic inequality as more legitimate and just. Compared to people in the highest income bracket, people in the lowest income bracket were 17 percent more likely to view economic inequality as necessary. And when asked whether they would support laws that limit the rights of citizens and the press to criticize the government if enacting such legislation was necessary to solve our nation’s problems, twice as many people in the lowest income bracket were willing to give up the right to free speech as those in the highest income bracket. After finding that disadvantaged groups consistently support the status quo more than advantaged groups, Jost and his colleagues concluded: “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it.”
To explain this peculiar phenomenon, Jost’s team developed a theory of system justification. Its core idea is that people are motivated to rationalize the status quo as legitimate—even if it goes directly against their interests. In one study, they tracked Democratic and Republican voters before the 2000 U.S. presidential election. When George W. Bush gained in the polls, Republicans rated him as more desirable, but so did Democrats, who were already preparing justifications for the anticipated status quo. The same happened when Al Gore’s likelihood of success increased: Both Republicans and Democrats judged him more favorably. Regardless of political ideologies, when a candidate seemed destined to win, people liked him more. When his odds dropped, they liked him less.
Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work.
The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. I’ve spent more than a decade studying this, and it turns out to be far less difficult than I expected.
The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse—we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.
Without a vuja de event, Warby Parker wouldn’t have existed. When the founders were sitting in the computer lab on the night they conjured up the company, they had spent a combined sixty years wearing glasses. The product had always been unreasonably expensive. But until that moment, they had taken the status quo for granted, never questioning the default price. “The thought had never crossed my mind,” cofounder Dave Gilboa says. “I had always considered them a medical purchase. I naturally assumed that if a doctor was selling it to me, there was some justification for the price.”
Having recently waited in line at the Apple Store to buy an iPhone, he found himself comparing the two products. Glasses had been a staple of human life for nearly a thousand years, and they’d hardly changed since his grandfather wore them. For the first time, Dave wondered why glasses had such a hefty price tag. Why did such a fundamentally simple product cost more than a complex smartphone?
Anyone could have asked those questions and arrived at the same answer that the Warby Parker squad did. Once they became curious about why the price was so steep, they began doing some research on the eyewear industry. That’s when they learned that it was dominated by Luxottica, a European company that had raked in over $7 billion the previous year. “Understanding that the same company owned LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley, and the licenses for Chanel and Prada prescription frames and sunglasses—all of a sudden, it made sense to me why glasses were so expensive,” Dave says. “Nothing in the cost of goods justified the price.” Taking advantage of its monopoly status, Luxottica was charging twenty times the cost. The default wasn’t inherently legitimate; it was a choice made by a group of people at a given company. And this meant that another group of people could make an alternative choice. “We could do things differently,” Dave suddenly understood. “It was a realization that we could control our own destiny, that we could control our own prices.”
When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them. Before women gained the right to vote in America, many “had never before considered their degraded status as anything but natural,” historian Jean Baker observes. As the suffrage movement gained momentum, “a growing number of women were beginning to see that custom, religious precept, and law were in fact man-made and therefore reversible.”
The Two Faces of Ambition
The pressures to accept defaults start much earlier than we realize. If you consider the individuals who will grow up and make a dent in the universe, the first group that probably comes to mind is child prodigies. These geniuses learn to read at age two, play Bach at four, breeze through calculus at six, and speak seven languages fluently by eight. Their classmates shudder with jealousy; their parents rejoice at having won the lottery. But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but a whimper.
Child prodigies, it turns out, rarely go on to change the world. When psychologists study history’s most eminent and influential people, they discover that many of them weren’t unusually gifted as children. And if you assemble a large group of child prodigies and follow them for their entire lives, you’ll find that they don’t outshine their less precocious peers from families of similar means.
Intuitively, this makes sense. We assume that what gifted kids have in book smarts, they lack in street smarts. While they have the intellectual chops, they must lack the social, emotional, and practical skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation falls short: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. The vast majority are well-adjusted—as delightful at a cocktail party as in a spelling bee.
Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.
Research demonstrates that it is the most creative children who are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet. In one study, elementary school teachers listed their favorite and least favorite students, and then rated both groups on a list of characteristics. The least favorite students were the non-conformists who made up their own rules. Teachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers. In response, many children quickly learn to get with the program, keeping their original ideas to themselves. In the language of author William Deresiewicz, they become the world’s most excellent sheep.
In adulthood, many child prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” from a child who “learns rapidly and effortlessly in an established domain” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”
Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.
Child prodigies are hindered by achievement motivation. The drive to succeed is responsible for many of the world’s greatest accomplishments. When we’re determined to excel, we have the fuel to work harder, longer, and smarter. But as cultures rack up a significant number of achievements, originality is increasingly left to a specialized few.
When achievement motivation goes sky-high, it can crowd out originality: The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success. As psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg put it, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
The drive to succeed and the accompanying fear of failure have held back some of the greatest creators and change agents in history. Concerned with maintaining stability and attaining conventional achievements, they have been reluctant to pursue originality. Instead of charging full steam ahead with assurance, they have been coaxed, convinced, or coerced to take a stand. While they may seem to have possessed the qualities of natural leaders, they were figuratively—and sometimes literally—lifted up by followers and peers. If a handful of people hadn’t been cajoled into taking original action, America might not exist, the civil rights movement could still be a dream, the Sistine Chapel might be bare, we might still believe the sun revolves around the earth, and the personal computer might never have been popularized.
From our perspective today, the Declaration of Independence seems inevitable, but it nearly didn’t happen due to the reluctance of key revolutionaries. “The men who took commanding roles in the American Revolution were as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one can imagine,” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jack Rakove recounts. “They became revolutionaries despite themselves.” In the years leading up to the war, John Adams feared British retaliation and hesitated to give up his budding law career; he only got involved after being elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. George Washington had been focused on managing his wheat, flour, fishing, and horse-breeding businesses, joining the cause only after Adams nominated him as commander in chief of the army. “I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it,” Washington wrote.
Nearly two centuries later, Martin Luther King, Jr., was apprehensive about leading the civil rights movement; his dream was to be a pastor and a college president. In 1955, after Rosa Parks was tried for refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus, a group of civil rights activists gathered to discuss their response. They agreed to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and launch a bus boycott, and one of the attendees nominated King for the presidency. “It had happened so quickly that I did not even have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination,” King reflected. Just three weeks earlier, King and his wife had “agreed that I should not then take on any heavy community responsibilities, since I had so recently finished my thesis, and needed to give more attention to my church work.” He was unanimously elected to lead the boycott. Faced with giving a speech to the community that evening, “I became possessed by fear.” King would overcome that trepidation soon enough that in 1963 his thundering voice united a country around an electrifying vision of freedom. But that only happened because a colleague proposed that King should be the closing speaker at the March on Washington and gathered a coalition of leaders to advocate for him.
When the pope commissioned him to paint a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo wasn’t interested. He viewed himself as a sculptor, not a painter, and found the task so overwhelming that he fled to Florence. Two years would pass before he began work on the project, at the pope’s insistence. And astronomy stagnated for decades because Nicolaus Copernicus refused to publish his original discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. Fearing rejection and ridicule, he stayed silent for twenty-two years, circulating his findings only to his friends. Eventually, a major cardinal learned of his work and wrote a letter encouraging Copernicus to publish it. Even then, Copernicus stalled for four more years. His magnum opus only saw the light of day after a young mathematics professor took matters into his own hands and submitted it...